Well Being: For men, a healthy lesson in listening

One of my favorite essays by Roger Rosenblatt, one of my favorite essayists, is entitled "The Silent Friendships of Men." In it, he states that among men, "there is a wordless understanding in which we function fairly well - especially in friendships. There are a dozen guys whom I count as friends and who do the same with me, yet months pass without our speaking, and even when we do, we don't."

Rosenblatt tells this story: Wordsworth goes to visit Coleridge at his cottage, walks in, sits down, and does not utter a word for three hours. Neither does Coleridge. Wordsworth then rises and, as he leaves, thanks his friend for a perfect evening.

Concludes Rosenblatt: "There's a deep, basically serene well of silence in most men, which, for better or worse, is where we live."

We men are notorious for bottling up our feelings. It's considered unmanly to blab and blubber about our doubts, fears, sorrows, and setbacks. Women have a natural talent for such unburdening; we don't. Result: We men can suffer inwardly and imperil our well-being.

"Most guys, privately, say they want more substantial relationships with other men but don't know how because of social stigma that include homophobia and fear of being considered soft, weak, feminine," says Rob Garfield, a Bala Cynwyd psychiatrist who has been coleading men's groups for 20 years and is now writing a book titled My Guys: How Men Can Make and Keep Close Male Friendships.

"There's a lot of medical evidence about the impact of men's friendships on health. The silence that can appear manly on the outside can really work against you, not just in terms of connection and mental health, but also physical health.

"When grief gets frozen, when you have a culture that says boys don't cry, it gets into the arteries and bones and organs, and we don't develop resilience and don't live as long."

If that's the case, then my friend Ted Glackman and some of his buddies should live well into their 80s and 90s. Glackman, 58, of Ardmore, is a psychologist who heads the Joseph J. Peters Institute, which deals with sexual-abuse issues.

For a dozen years or so, Glackman has participated with four pals in a men's group that meets twice a month.

"In general, women are more verbally facile than men," Glackman says. "Men and women think differently and process things differently. Men understand other men in a way no one else does. We have the capacity to understand the pressures, the struggles, the expectations we face."

On a recent Tuesday night, I joined Glackman's men's group at the Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant. There, I met the other members: David Kern, 59, of Mount Airy, director of the Lower School at Penn Charter; Tom Casey, 65, of Bala Cynwyd, a pediatrician; Myles Pettengill, 59, of Chestnut Hill, a builder specializing in historic renovation; and Tom Talone, 65, of Roxborough, who works for the city Health Department in vector control.

The proceedings are informal and spontaneous. No one leads the group. There are no Robert Bly-like mythopoetical rituals, such as banging on drums or dancing in loincloths around a fire in the woods. There may be talk initially about sports and current events, books and movies, but the men convene for a more important purpose.

"We have all weathered crises and changes and have found the group to be tremendously helpful as a sounding board," says Casey, who recalls the comment of a former member: "We are partly each other's board of directors."

And so conversation may revolve around marital problems, relationships, children, work difficulties, transitions and crucial decisions, aging and its associated passages and ailments. These matters take precedence over chitchat.

"In a group like this we work hard to stay on point," Kern says. "Without a formal leader, we have to keep checking ourselves, making sure we're getting to the right stuff."

The long-standing bond among the men, their familiarity and easy intimacy, enables the conversation to go deeper and the men to speak from their hearts.

"We've all come together because we want to come together," says Pettengill, who recalls how supportive the group was when his sister was dying of cancer, "so there's that positive energy of wanting to have a meaningful relationship. The dynamics are such that you always know you're going to have a good group of listeners."

Garfield calls listening among men "a lost art." In this group, the emphasis is on listening rather than dispensing advice. The men realize that just paying attention is tremendously therapeutic, a simple yet powerful act of love.

"We try not to do direct problem solving," Glackman says. "That energy - Zeus energy, the Godlike need to rectify things and make things happen - is valuable, but not always the right tool for every circumstance."

Talone describes the group as "just really caring friends."

"It opens up territory that isn't covered with a lot of my other friends - being able to talk about things that really bother you deep down or life circumstances that you're going through and don't know how to handle. It can be a wonderful relief to have that kind of support."


"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at acarey@phillynews.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.